How Nonprofit Networks Are Raising the Bar on Results

When people are asked to identify nonprofits, certain names jump to the foreground—the YMCA, the American Red Cross, Boys and Girls Clubs, Habitat for Humanity. What these household names have in common, besides size and fame, is that they all work through a network structure, with multiple affiliates across the country striving for significant impact. In fact, nine of the ten largest US nonprofits are networks.

For decades, the main pressure facing networks was to be in more places and serve more people. Now, there is a different kind of pressure: to get better. Networks with multiple sites are increasingly expected to provide donors and supporters with a higher level of evidence that their work is effective and delivered consistently across the board. While an “outcomes” orientation isn’t new, its effect on the sector has been magnified, in part because of the difficult economy.

In our work, we have seen several networks take promising steps to deliver measurably better results in achieving their missions. Central offices are working collaboratively with affiliates to improve the way in which their network’s high-level strategy translates into action across the entire organization. They’re figuring out where their best work is being done, finding ways to become more effective, and learning how to ensure that all affiliates benefit from the experiences and know-how of their peers.

Here are five promising elements that networks are using to raise the bar:

Use the network’s unified strategy to drive decision-making. Maintain consensus around a common strategy to keep each office moving in the same direction. Establish universal key performance indicators that apply to all, regardless of size, programming, and population characteristics. These measures help the organization assess individual high performers, identify the things needed to improve their results, and show where one might benefit from the experiences of another.

Create a common language by defining the dimensions of effectiveness. When everyone shares an understanding of what high performance looks like, it becomes easier to identify reliable indicators of effectiveness. Ask: What information will allow us to set clear expectations and compare results? What will help us see how each office performs against a common strategic goal and understand why some may be achieving more than others? What support is needed to transform the effectiveness of the individual and the national organization itself?

Create paths to improvement. Professionals hone their skills by progressing through a series of developmental milestones. Make the pathway clear.

Diagnose where you are today and uncover pockets of strength. Figure out the developmental stage you’re at, then compare to the baseline measurements for success. They ask: Where do you fall on the developmental continuum? Are there pockets of strength in the organization, despite an overall failure? How might the national organization strengthen performance if each office could improve in one key area?

Capture knowledge that matters: Figure out what to do first and how each office can best learn from others. Especially important may be the use of a self-evaluation tool to track performance indicators, understand individual strengths and weakness relative to others, and tailor performance improvement strategies to those strengths and weaknesses.

From Stanford Social Innovation Review: A new article, “Growing Network Impact: How Nonprofit Networks are Raising the Bar on Results” shows how the work of six networks illustrates these practices.

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